Friday, 23 July 2010

St. Bridget of Sweden and The Importance of Mystical Theology

St. Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden reminds us that we cannot brush aside the mystical aspects of the spiritual life. As difficult as it may be in some cases to discern whether a person is genuinely receiving locutions or is experiencing visions that are not the result of illness or a disturbed imagination, we must guard against the kind of dismissive attitude that refuses even to consider that a person may be a genuine mystic, and which often leads to unjust judgements. Bishops and priests, and others who may be charged with the task of discernment, must always remember that just because a person claims to be having visions etc does not mean that he/she is no longer entitled to the respect we owe to every human being. In the name of avoiding error great injustice has often been visited on people. Sometimes they have been genuine mystics or have become great religious reformers (e.g. St. John of The Cross). Injustice cannot be justified on the basis of exercising caution.

As St. Paul tells us, "God works through everything" and it is clear that suffering is allowed by God in such cases, but that does not mean - cannot ever mean - that God approves of cruelty, insults and injustice. Sometimes I have seen and heard the most uncharitable remarks made about people who claim to be having visions as though those making such remarks have a God-given right to do so. Such critics are seriously mistaken. In particular a bishop or priest (or deacon for that matter) has a serious duty of pastoral care towards a person they may regard as deluded or mentally disturbed. Brushing people off with the advice, "You need to see your doctor" or words to that effect should not be the first response. If we do not know the person concerned we need to listen and ask questions, always treating the person with respect. If it becomes clear that theologically, spiritually or - quite possibly - medically, there are serious problems, we must act with gentleness as well as firmness. We should always try to leave a person with hope. No one should leave our presbyteries feeling utterly dejected or abandoned.
Having said all that, mystical experiences cannot be relegated to the fringes of the Church. We need only remember the extraordinary conversion of St. Paul to understand this. That was a "private revelation" which was also to become public. Without that mystical experience there would be no St. Paul. The revelations of St. Bridget were also to be made public. Our Lord is reported to have told her that He was not just speaking to her, but to everyone. We might also remember that some more recent apparitions and revelations have had - and still have - great historical importance. There is no need to list them all. It is only necessary to mention the message and apparitions at Fatima in 1917. No one was more convinced about the importance of these events than Pope John Paul II who believed that his life had been saved by an extraordinary intervention of Our Lady. Although, at that time, he knew little of Fatima, he asked for information about it and became convinced that the story and messages of Fatima were connected with both the attempted assassination and his recovery. The bullet that went through his body and fell in the land-rover is now lodged in the crown of the statue of Our Lady in the pilgrimage chapel at Fatima. No one who has read about those events in 1917 in Portugal, and knows about the background to them (the First World War, the Russian Revolution etc) can doubt that mystical events, "private" revelations and apparitions are often much more important than most Catholics are willing to accept. I vaguely remember reading something by the late Fr. Karl Rahner regarding the oft-mentioned excuse that "such things are not necessary for salvation" in which he made the point that if something is judged to be (likely) from God, a negative response does not make much sense. Another theologian (I think it was the late Marian theologian Fr. Buby) said that we are not excused from paying attention just because something is "not necessary" for salvation. What is necessary is that we obey our consciences, and if I believe that Fatima is genuine and yet ignore it, what is that? Is that obeying my conscience?

1 comment:

  1. Dear Father,

    I saw your post title on my bloglist this morning and have had to wait until now to read the post itself. I have found it very instructive and consoling and it sends me to bed with much food for thought and prayer. Thank you for it.

    I've done all the meme stuff and hope I haven't made any mistakes.

    I hope you will keep in touch. My email is:

    With my filial devotion and prayers,